Targeting the Social Behavior

Social networks are a hot topic. People seem to either want to start one, invest in one, join one, or simply talk about one. A plethora of social networks are popping up all over the world, including the over-hyped MySpace, Bebo in the U.K., and the Netherlands’ Hyves. Thanks to the universal accessibility of the Internet, many are attracting growing international audiences outside their birth countries.

One can convincingly argue the likes of YouTube, Freewebs, even “old school” media giants such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN also dabble in the social network arena and qualify (to some degree) to be called communities. It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish the difference between a site with content that attracts loyal visitors who form a community due to visit frequency and a social network site simply designed to build a community based on content creation and sharing.

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter how they were created. What matters is how we can tap into them to reach consumers.

Most planners know these social networks represent immediate new advertising opportunities, but the formation of these group communities actually have fundamental effects on online consumer behavior. These represents significant growth opportunities for behavioral targeting.

Understanding Collective Memories and Group Behavior

Relationships are a large part of being human. Whether a relationship is formed physically in real life or virtually on the Web, people have an inherent need to seek belonging in life. As a result, groups are formed.

A group is academically defined as two or more people who consistently interact with and influence one another and perceive one another as “us.” Social networks are just one manifestation of this group formation.

In this sense, online social networks are no different than their real-life counterparts. The purpose of a social network is to bring together a group of individuals who have at least one thing in common. That thing could be that they went to the same university, have the same hobby, are obsessed about emerging markets’ GDP growth, work in the same industry, or simply want to make some friends.

Whatever this common thread is, members create so-called collective memories within the community. Collective memories are shared experiences network members have with one another, through either collaborative discussions, exchanges of information, or simply group-based communications that can be contextualized in the forms of viral, blogs, message boards, and the like.

To effectively target a group’s identifiable actions, it’s critical marketers fundamentally understand the driving forces behind interests and experiences.

Capture the Low-Hanging Community Fruit

Behavioral targeting is based on segmenting the observable consumer actions, which when cross-referenced with the content of pages visited, can be used as proxies for interests and behaviors. Social networks, in many cases, have already done this interest-based segmentation for targeting as they’re formed based on shared interests.

Consider the categories of advertisers who are most aggressive in adopting behavioral targeting, such as auto, travel, and others with distinct purchase cycles, and ones with clear exploratory paths, such as health. These are also the categories with the most common networks and communities formed around them on the Web.

From a social-psychological perspective, social influences (e.g., shared experiences) represent the foundation in the development of group attitudes, which are instrumental in manifesting themselves into group behaviors. The “birds of a feather flock together” concept, a topic we’ve previously discussed, holds true here and creates a naturally fertile environment for group-based behavioral targeting opportunities.

What Does This Mean for Online Media?

According to Forrester Research, 43 percent of young consumers will tolerate ads that pertain to their interests. The foundation of social networks is based on shared interests and collective memories and thus offer already segmented groups with strong identifiable interests and behaviors. There’s no question, then, they represent the next milestone for behavioral targeting to establish itself.

Brands, agencies, and publishers talk about social networks as if they’re the next big thing to hit the online industry. But amidst the PR storm about social network growth, we have yet to hear much about the likes of MySpace inking partnerships with Tacoda, Revenue Science, or other technology partners.

Perhaps the industry has yet to fully realize the potential of social networks and the targeting environment they can offer. Combining search and social network with behavioral targeting is another potential growth area that has yet to be fully explored, for example, although we’re seeing MSN, Yahoo, and Google progressing toward the integration of search and display with targeting. But no one has yet claimed any dominant market position in the social network targeting space.

As my dear friend Ulf Delbro, who works in business intelligence, would say, “History tells us that we frequently overestimate the speed of change, but we underestimate the weight of its influence once a change has made its breakthrough.” This is certainly the case for social network and behavioral targeting.

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